Cockpit culture in sales

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Is cockpit culture damaging your sales results?

The story of Asiana Flight 214

July 6, 2013. Asiana Airlines Flight 214 was heading to land at San Francisco international airport. It’d been a long flight from Incheon airport near Seoul, South Korea. On its final approach, the plane crashed while attempting a landing. Two people were killed in the Boeing 777 accident, whilst more than 180 of the 307 people on the flight were injured.

In his brilliant book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shares the story of the Asiana Airlines flight. If you’re unfamiliar with him as an author you should take time to research his work, especially Outliers and Blink.

In part of his summary, Gladwell suggests that in the Korean culture “You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors…” and it isn’t poor training that led to the crash but rather “What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical“

cockpit culture in sales organisations

Did cockpit culture cause the crash of Asiana flight 214

You can investigate more about the journey of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 on the National Geographic link below, where you can see more about the history, research and insight into the crash and the circumstances that may have contributed to it.


What is hierarchical culture?
The Korean culture is an example of a hierarchical culture. But perhaps, just maybe, you have experienced structure and behaviours like this in your workplace and career. According to My HR Toolkit, a hierarchical culture is a culture that “…predominantly focuses on creating a relatively fixed organisational structure through the implementation of certain processes and rules, as well as the introduction of multiple levels of power and responsibility within the organisation.

There are further pros and cons of hierarchical culture on the My HR Toolkit blog.

According to, one of the key characteristics of a hierarchical culture is top-down information sharing and decision-making processes. There may also be a methodical approach to decision making which could prevent nimble, reactive and quick decisions. It’s assumed however that there is a robust and strong brand perception of organisations that operate with a focus on reliability and consistency.

Four weaknesses of a hierarchical culture:
1. Slow moving
2. Hard to change core mission
3. Occupational dead ends
4. Hard to adjust to new methods

Perhaps it’s obvious to highlight the opportunities that mirror these weaknesses but can you can perhaps see in a time and place where the customer has changed and is expecting quick responses, self-serving opportunities and are wholly better researched about you and the organisation that some gaps may occur and the rigidity and slow-moving nature of the hierarchical culture may stifle progress from a customer-centric perspective.

Hierarchical culture

Mitigated speech and how to spot that the team might have better ideas.

“. . . ‘mitigated speech,’ . . . refers to any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said. We mitigate when we’re being polite, or when we’re ashamed or embarrassed, or when we’re being deferential to authority. If you want your boss to do you a favour, you don’t say, “I’ll need this by Monday.” You mitigate.

You might say, “Don’t bother, if it’s too much trouble, but if you have a chance to look at this over the weekend, that would be wonderful.” In a situation like that, mitigation is entirely appropriate. In other situations, however—like a cockpit on a stormy night—it’s a problem.

We are operating in turbulent times, with global pressures and shifting consumer behaviours, expectations and demands. I’d say this is quite a stormy night we are facing, wouldn’t you?!

Perhaps take time to reflect on the conversations you have with those in your team. Are they half saying something knowing that there are risks to them speaking openly in the current culture? What might they know that is going unsaid?!

Why not read further 📚

Cockpit Culture and Malcolm Gladwell’s theory 📚

What we’ve observed in sales teams
In our book Modern Sales Leadership, we speak about common pitfalls that we’ve observed, the journey from traditional sales behaviours to a more modern and aligned culture of sales leadership. From our work with businesses across the UK and beyond, several common themes start to emerge that emphasise the point of reverting to type and staying within the comfort zone. These include tactics such as…

  • just one more call
  • drive more miles
  • hit up the black book again
  • more hours doing more of the same that we always used to do


These are directives from the top down and ultimately come with the premise of doing more of what we’ve always done and expecting different (and better) results. This can stifle creativity, innovation and success and could lend itself to creating a culture of fear from the team who are scared or apprehensive to try something new when the world around them has changed wholly.

Does this sound like your sales team and your sales leadership?

Are your sales team afraid to perform?
What old habits are your team working towards that might just not be relevant for today’s market? Taking reference from what we’ve shared in the article so far, can you see a potential for your team to see what’s happening but possibly be afraid to speak up?

We see this at play quite often in more traditional sectors. The team can see the huge opportunity in social media (for example) or incorporating more digital content into their sales process (for example), but are afraid to step up for fear of “doing it wrong” or “getting in trouble” or, most prominently in this scenario – we don’t have permission from the top to do this.

If your “co-pilot” can see what is happening but are afraid to speak up or prevented from doing so because of the organisational culture, what risks might you see that are preventing true sales success?

“Nobody gets fired for buying IBM…”
The classic ‘in the box thinking‘ approach to business. I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of it, haven’t we? Why would I stick my head above the parapet and risk getting it wrong?!

With this fixed mindset a sales professional, and indeed the business itself, can be guilty of lacking innovation, and not taking (measured) risks to create the space for better sales outcomes. In hierarchical structures where decision-making is more top-down, why would a sales professional risk their professional reputation inside the company by suggesting something that would improve the organisation’s reputation outside of the company?

Is it perhaps easier to toe the line and agree with company policy and culture in spite of seeing greater opportunities rather than search for greater opportunities because of the company culture?

You might be missing out on the next generation of brilliant sales professionals.
Not only might your existing team be comfortable in their existing habits or silently frustrated by opportunities missed, but your next brilliant recruit might also simply bypass your shop window. Why? Because they’ve researched you.

The changing face of the workplace

The changing ambitions and motivations of the sales professional. From baby boomer to generation alpha

What got you here, won’t get you there.
Without a doubt, businesses who have created a multi-generational legacy built on wholly traditional means; miles driven, calls made, expos attended and so on, have done so with hard work, determination and a level of desire that should be celebrated, I absolutely believe this.

A business cannot ignore the facts however and must look at the power, influence and sway a customer has in the modern digital age. Legacy and brand reputation will not win a sale in the early stages of the buying journey, but it could well lose it.

We’ve seen it unfold many times with our work here at Plan Grow Do. We speak with Sales Directors or CEOs who have lived and breathed the business journey to date and have built a very successful business from the. back of their actions and decisions. So it is hard to challenge the status quo with a new paradigm or a new mindset when the status quo got the business to where it is today.

What might contribute get you where your sales need to be?
But, like the businesses we speak to who may have strong growth ambitions, your team or current sales operation may not be set up to succeed; you may be measuring the wrong things from a lack of clear process or definition of what an actual prospect is for your business – creating lists not leads.

Your growth ambitions might be at risk from the digital drift between your messaging and sales activity and the expectations of your consumer and modern buyer or you might not be aware of the huge potential that is here with the vast shift in communication via social media. Perhaps an awareness of what stops the sales team from using social media for sales success might help overcome some barriers.

Customer centricity should encourage joining up your sales and marketing activity and using the strengths of your hierarchical culture you can create a position of dominance that will support your ambition and empower the team to look beyond the traditional norms they are used to.

It’s different in our industry (and another 100 ‘unique’ excuses) & what you can start to do about it
Businesses and sales teams naturally defer to what they are most comfortable doing. The market has changed, your market has changed and just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean your customers and prospects don’t expect you to show up differently.

You may think your market is different and assume that just because you’re comfortable doing it this way means your market is comfortable standing still with traditional activity too.

We don’t do things like that here…
I mentioned previously the opportunity for customer centricity to guide your sales and marketing alignment and to help you realise some of the opportunities that may sit outside of the traditional sales activity to which you and your team have become so accustomed.

The digitalisation of the sales process proves that the buyers’ journey has changed. Your mindset and approach to sales must see outside the current frame and you must challenge yourself to ask how digital is impacting your sales, not if it will impact your sales success.

Getting started with culture change that speaks directly to the buyer in a more relevant way.
Why sales leadership matters
In his conversation with Growth Expert Rick Denley, Steve Knapp shares thoughts on why modern sales leadership matters. See the snippet below as it’s wholly relevant to this article.

Type 1 and type 2 decisions – what’s the worst that can happen?!

OK, so you might see the risks outlined from the Korean Air culture struggle, you may appreciate the risks in the hierarchical culture you have built successfully over the previous years and you might now believe you have a workforce of sellers who see exactly what opportunities are out there that line up in a much more relevant way to how your buyers are buying and you might realise now that your buyers have a whole world of information, platforms, tools and technology to hand that makes them much more expectant, demanding and decisive than when your business was building.

So what can you do about it?
Well, lessons could perhaps be learned from outside of your business and outside your industry. Jeff Bezos, creator of Amazon and in 2021, an employer of 1.6 million people developed a decision-making system so simple yet effective that it enabled decisions to be made quickly, effectively and in a way that empowered and enabled the workforce and avoided catastrophic bad decision making.

Type 1 and type 2 decision making
Type 1 decisions: These are irreversible decisions that cannot be changed once executed. Therefore, they require careful thought.

Type 2 decisions: These are reversible decisions. Even after executing them, you can change them if you like. Therefore, you must act on such decisions quickly.

Type one and type 2 decision making

You should read more about the benefits and risks by adopting a type 1, type 2 decision making process on the Productive Club website.

How to become a better sales coach
Perhaps you could benefit form downloading our free (no email required) ebook all about developing a sales culture based on the development of confidence, process and structure? You can download the sales culture development ebook here.

Also, some very helpful ideas to support you in how to become a better sales coach. This article will help you understand more around the premise that salespeople average only 3 years of peak performance in a role.The average tenure of a B2B sales professional is at an alarming 16.8 months.Only 5% of B2B sales professionals stay with a company for more that 5 years.On average, teams that report receiving more than 3 hours of coaching per month exceed their goals by 7%.

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